Vietnam-era vet will always remember a hug from the president


I once had an encounter with Bill Clinton while he was president.

I remember I liked Clinton right from the very start. He talked about uniting the country while others were busy dividing it, and that was important to me. Plus there was just something about his friendly, open way and his hope for the future that I liked.

Earlier in the year, my wife and I went to Washington as tourists. We saw the White House and the surrounding grounds, but I was always secretly hoping to meet President Clinton. It never happened.

All that year Clinton was subject to really hateful and vindictive attacks, which made my support for him grow all the stronger.

One day I heard he was coming to Providence.

I remember that morning as I went off to work, I told my wife, I might pay a visit to the airport in Warwick where he was expected to land. But I wasn't sure. The main thing that concerned me was the crowds. I just didn't feel like standing in a mob to see a tiny figure in the distance for just a second, and then spend an hour and a half fighting traffic to get home.

At that time, I worked at WPRO radio, which is located on the Wampanoag Trail in East Providence.

The ride home involves heading west on Route 195. At a certain point 195 comes to an end, and you must decide to go either right on Route 95 North or left on 95 South. North would take me home; south to the airport. I was just about to turn right and go north, but something told me to take a left and go south.

I went south and got off at Green State Airport in Warwick.

When I got to the airport, I ran into a massive congestion of cars. I was forced to drive slowly looking for a place to park. The airport was on one side and a Hooters restaurant on the other. The restaurant had a big sign "Mr. President. Hooters Welcomes you!"

Miraculously, I found a place to park about a half-mile away and I ran to an entrance where a long line of people were being searched. I waited and eventually got through and joined the crowd near the runway. The expression "packed like sardines” certainly applied!

Suddenly, I heard a roar! I looked up and there was President Clinton standing on the steps of Air Force One. He is a very good-looking man, even better in person than on TV, and when I saw him, I thought, "No wonder all the women are chasing him!"

He soon disappeared from view, but a short while later there was another roar from the crowd! People were putting up their hands to touch his as he walked along the line! I put up mine and, sure enough, we touched! I ran further down the line, put up my hand again and again touched his! It was incredible to touch the hand of the man I so admired. Not once, but twice!

He worked his way down the crowd, eventually going to a limousine parked on the runway.

In a little while, the crowd thinned out and most of the people left. But not me. I noticed there were two velvet ropes extending from a point near his limousine down the ramp into the airport terminal. I figured if he was going to leave the limousine and walk to the terminal, this would be his route.

So I waited, and sure enough. He got out of the limousine and started to walk into the airport terminal.

The remaining crowd came alive again, and I was right on the rope line where I could easily speak to him as he walked by. About 10 feet from me, he stopped for a woman and her daughter. The woman took out a camera, and her daughter stood beside the president as the woman snapped a picture. He was only a few feet from me at the time and I was hoping to speak with him but at the very last second, as he continued toward the terminal, he turned and looked at the people on the other side of the rope, and he passed me by.

I was determined. I shouted out, "Mr. President. Can you speak with the Vietnam Era veteran?”

He turned around and walked back toward me. Considering all the trouble he had been getting from veterans, especially those from the Vietnam era, I thought it was an amazing display of courage. I could have said or done something really nasty and it would have been all over the news.

Now the path that leads from the runway into the terminal slopes down, while the area I was standing on did not. Which meant he was really standing about four inches below me as he stood directly in front of me. Even so, he stood taller. He faced me directly, and I started to speak.

I had on my sunglasses at the time and there were two tall men on each side of him. One of them interrupted me and said, "Take off your sunglasses!"

I took them off, and I put them in my pocket. It was a warm day and there was dry air blowing from in back of him directly into my eyes. It helped hide my emotions.

I took his hand and his arm. At first, I did not know what to say, so I said what was in my heart. I looked him in the eyes and said, “Mr. President, I am a Vietnam Era veteran, and I just want you to know we love you!"

As I said this, he put his arm around me and started to hug me!

The whole episode seemed unreal. As he hugged, I could feel a very heavy vest that he was wearing, and I said to myself, “Whatever you do, keep your hands visible and don't reach into your pocket for a pen! It will be the last thing you ever do!”

The hug actually lasted for a few seconds, after which he gave me a pat, the signal to break, and I did.

I was in a total state of shock and could hardly believe what happened. When I came out of it, there he was standing facing a TV camera, and there I was standing beside him ... with my arm still around him!

After a few seconds, it ended, and he left. As he was walking away I shouted, "Good luck Mr. President and God bless you!"

I drove home that night hardly believing what had happened. As I entered the door, there was my wife. She smiled and she asked, "Well, did you get to see the president?"

I said to her, "Sit down, honey! Do I have a story for you!”

Charles Lawrence lives in Johnston and occasionally contributes his views to this publication. This is his first personal account we have published.


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